Towner Cinema – Niall Richardson for LGBTQ+ History Month
Posted on 19/02/2021
February is LBGTQ+ History Month and ordinarily we would be marking the occasion by welcoming you to Towner Cinema for a special screening, or season of films. This year we’ve invited Niall Richardson, friend of Towner Cinema and senior lecturer in film at University of Sussex, to share with us a handful of his favourite feel-good movies.
During LGBTQ+ history month, we often showcase films that remind us of the early struggles of Gay Liberation politics and the shocking homophobia of the 60s, 70s and 80s. However, given that we are probably all feeling down, because of the restrictions of the current lockdown, I thought I would recommend three feel-good, LGBTQ-themed, Hollywood films. These films may help to lift our spirits but, more importantly, will also remind us of the tremendous advancements that have been made in LGBTQ+ rights within the past couple of decades alone.
The Broken Hearts Club (Greg Berlanti, 2000)
Often identified as a boys-version of Sex and the City, or an upbeat Boys in the Band, The Broken Hearts Club is one of the first gay-themed films not to focus on the topics featured in previous gay cinema such as homophobia, tragic coming-out stories and HIV/AIDS. Instead, The Broken Hearts Club narrates the friendships and dating troubles of a group of well-to-do, handsome, young gay men living in West Hollywood – the gay enclave of Los Angeles. At its core, The Broken Hearts Club is a film stressing the importance of friendship and the formation of a gay community. Its message is that romantic relationships may come and go but friends will always be there for each other.
The Broken Hearts Club was praised at the time of release for its representation of a post-homophobic culture. The narrative celebrated a gay community that had managed to carve out a niche where they could be ‘tolerated’ in a metropolitan setting. As such, the film can be read as a cultural barometer of gay politics at the turn of the century where tolerance was the main goal rather than assimilation via same sex marriage. Of course, this was a time when equal marriage was not a widely debated issue given that the Netherlands was the only country in the world to have legalised equal marriage in 2000. Although The Broken Hearts Club represents a milestone in gay affirmation, it is remarkable to note how fast politics have changed within the past two decades.
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010)
Produced 10 years after The Broken Hearts Club, The Kids are All Right was the first LGBTQ+ Hollywood dramedy to focus on marriage and queer families – rather than the friendship & dating exploits of earlier romantic comedies. Same-sex marriage was legalised in Massachusetts 2004 – thus inspiring a push for greater activism across the rest of the USA. While there were many setbacks (some states, such as California, legalised same-sex marriage and then subsequently banned it due to public pressure from a referendum ballot) the eventual outcome was that the Supreme Court of the USA legislated in favour of same-sex marriage in 2015. A mainstream, Hollywood film like The Kids are All Right can be seen as a litmus test of how far public opinion had shifted in favour of equal marriage.
Although some critics did object to the way the queer family was contained within the traditional suburban home (instead of the picket fence being white it had merely been painted in rainbow hues) other critics praised the film’s focus on the difficulties and trials of family life. In many ways, The Kids Are All Right wasn’t a film about the troubles of a lesbian family but about the universal issues and problems that affect all parents and their kids. Fighting for the legal right to get married may be hard enough but the marriage itself can often be the real struggle. As the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said during the Supreme Court’s discussions about extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, ‘People who love each other should be able to enjoy the blessings and the strife in the marriage relationship.’
Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005)
Newly elected President Joe Biden has identified trans rights as the civil rights issue of the current day. Transgender stories feature heavily in the contemporary press (often underpinned with a finely tuned transphobia) and trans rights have become a highly contentious issue, inspiring toxic debate between trans-inclusive feminists and gender-critical feminists. Before trans people became the subject of so much discussion, Transamerica was a low budget film that became the surprise hit of 2005. Nobody expected that a road movie about a trans woman, driving across the USA in a clapped-out jalopy, would prove to be such a feel-good, uplifting story. However, Transamerica succeeded in doing just that. Like all road movies, the physical journey across the arterial highway of the USA, is a metaphor for the hero’s self-discovery and eventual self-acceptance. Given that the road movie genre had recently evolved to address feminist issues (Thelma and Louise) and gay stories (My Own Private Idaho, The Living End), it did seem likely that the genre would develop to encompass trans narratives.
Despite its trans-affirmative ideology, Transamerica does have a number of flaws. The casting of a cisgender actor (Felicity Huffman) in the role of a transgender woman (Bree) is a casting decision that is now inspiring considerable debate. Similarly, the film does celebrate a narrow idea of “acceptable” transfemininity: one that is conservative, conventional, desexualised and white. However, despite these issues, Transamerica is more progressive than many recent trans representations in the way it questions the very idea of “authentic” femininity. The heroine Bree is juxtaposed with her perma-tanned, gaudily dressed mother (played by the amazing Fionnula Flanagan) whose failed attempts at glamour make her look more like a drag queen than a sophisticated housewife. In this respect, Transamerica can be read as emphasising that femininity is an impossible ideal that all women (whether cisgender or transgender) struggle to attain. At its core, the film can be read as emphasising that life is difficult enough for all women, whether they identify as cisgender or transgender, and so creating further boundaries and discriminations is not helping the rights of anyone.
We are proud recipients of the BFI FAN Covid-19 Resilience fund with thanks to the BFI Film Audience Network awarding funds from National Lottery.